Fire Service

In the second installment of our series focusing on the Emergency Services, we show how the UK’s fire and rescue services can offer a similar working environment to the Armed Forces – and great career prospects.

There’s a common misconception about firefighters – that they ‘just’ fight fires. But they do much more: from rescuing the proverbial cat stuck up a tree to attending road accidents, floods and terrorist bomb alerts, firefighters are on the front line at all types of incident. Indeed, an average of just one in five call outs – or ‘shouts’ – relates specifically to a fire.

When handling these high-pressure situations, firefighters need to use their skills and initiative to solve life-threatening problems while also dealing sensitively with members of the public who are likely to be distressed and confused. But the job’s not only about reacting to events when they happen; increasingly firefighters also carry out preventative work within their local communities, promoting fire safety and enforcing safety standards in public, private and commercial premises. Amongst all this they routinely inspect, clean and maintain their equipment, carry out practice drills and take part in training.

There are two types of firefighter: full-time and retained (firefighters who work on call and often have another ‘day job’). Full-time firefighters are mostly found within urban areas, while retained personnel tend to be used to cover larger rural areas and smaller towns. Typically, there are more opportunities available for retained firefighters than full-time personnel; indeed, it’s a little known fact that around 60% of fire service appliances (fire engines) in the UK are actually operated by retained firefighters. There are currently 58 local fire brigades across the UK, including eight brigades in Scotland and the single Northern Ireland Fire Brigade across the Irish Sea. (There are also local brigades for the Channel Islands, and the Isles of Man, Scilly and Wight.) Each brigade organises its own recruitment and is responsible to a Local Fire Authority usually linked to the relevant local authority. Not all brigades will be looking for new personnel at the same time, but when positions are available they will generally be advertised through their websites or local media. Alternatively, there are some firefighting opportunities with large employers such as the British Airports Authority, which operates Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Southampton airports in the UK.

Full-time firefighters operate in crews (‘watches’) of up to six people allocated to an appliance and work between 38- and 48-hour weeks (including overtime) divided into shifts to ensure 24-hour coverage. Whilst on duty, each watch lives and works closely together; it’s the camaraderie arising from this that often appeals to those Service leavers who are looking to find a positive environment similar to the uniformed, disciplined and hierarchical world they are leaving behind. So it is no surprise that many of those who opt for firefighting as a second career previously served Queen and Country and are looking for another way to make a positive contribution.

It is by no means guaranteed that you will be able to transfer from one uniformed world to the other – quite apart from the competition for places, you will have to show good conduct during your time in HM Armed Forces. However, it is certainly true that fire brigades are on the lookout for skills and attributes that most Service leavers possess: good stamina and a high level of physical fitness; the ability to react quickly and to remain calm in stressful, physically demanding situations; the courage and determination to get the job done; a high level of personal discipline matched with excellent team-working skills; a willingness to undertake regular study and assessment of training; plus good practical skills when it comes to dealing with a range of increasingly sophisticated tools and firefighting equipment. Brigades will also look favourably on any firefighting experience gained during military service, particularly if you completed the basic firefighting course at the MoD Fire Services Central Training Establishment at Manston. While this will not, in itself, allow you to avoid any part of your civilian firefighting training, it will give you a significant lead.

Of course, there are differences between life in HM Armed Forces and the Fire Service. To start with, it’s much more likely that you will be dealing with members of the public, both at incidents and through educational initiatives in schools, community centres and workplaces. Good communication skills – learning how to quickly persuade rather than just order someone – are increasingly important. You will also suddenly find yourself within a new world of industrial relations, able to call on the backing of the Fire Brigades Union in matters of pay, working conditions and compensation for injury or work-related stress. Indeed, unlike police officers, you will even have the right to withhold your labour if you deem it necessary – a fact brought to the foreground the last time firefighters went on strike and the British Army was once again called in to operate the old Green Goddess fire engines.

Selection as a firefighter is based on successfully passing an interview, a written exam, a stringent medical examination and a statutory series of practical and physical tests. You will also need good unaided eyesight and will have your colour vision tested.

All firefighters start on the same bottom rung of the career ladder, with subsequent promotion based on merit; you cannot jump rank on the back of previously attained qualifications. While there are no set academic requirements for entering the profession, the high level of interest in
full-time positions means that, to be considered seriously, you will need to show recruiters a reasonable standard of education – ideally in maths, English and a science-related subject – as well as good character. If you already have A-levels/Higher Grades or a degree-level qualification, you should be able to pass promotion exams more quickly.

Full-time induction training lasts between 12 and 16 weeks (up to 18 weeks in Northern Ireland) at either the Fire Service College (at Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire), the Scottish Fire Services College (near Gullane, East Lothian) or the Northern Ireland Fire Brigade’s own Training Centre in Belfast. For your future work in fire safety education and enforcement you will be introduced to current fire safety regulations and protective measures, while practical training will include fire behaviour and firefighting rescue techniques, the use of equipment and protective clothing, and basic first aid. After completing this full-time induction training, you will then join your local fire station for a probationary period of up to two years, learning on the job from experienced firefighters and receiving ongoing assessment of your performance.

Retained firefighters complete their induction over a series of weekends and are expected to attend weekly practice drill nights. Occasionally they may be required to attend short training courses held during the day. The probationary period for retained firefighters varies from one brigade to another, but could be up to two years.

Training and learning doesn’t stop, however, after the probationary period. The Integrated Personal Development System (IPDS), introduced several years ago, has brought about significant changes in the career structure of the UK’s fire and rescue services – putting a far greater emphasis on acquiring skills (matched against National Occupational Standards) rather than just attaining rank based on time served. IPDS is designed to encourage continuous module-based training and the gaining of National or Scottish Vocational Qualifications (N/SVQs) Levels 2 and 3 in Emergency Fire Services or other professional/degree level qualifications in fire engineering, public administration and management studies.

While there is a national salary structure in place, pay is determined by the local fire authorities who act as firefighters’ employers, and will be affected by skills, experience and working hours. Currently trainee firefighters earn an annual basic of £19,918, while firefighters can earn basics of between £20,747 and £26,548 depending on experience and competency. For watch managers, basic salaries can range from £30,070 to £32,913, while station managers can earn from £34,235 to £37,761 depending on experience.

Retained firefighters who are on call 24/7 are paid an annual retainer of between £1,992 and £2,655, with additional hourly payments (£9.09 to £12.12, depending on an individual’s competency) for attending incidents, along with a ‘disturbance’ payment of £3.48 per incident.

Thanks to the quantifiable changes brought about by the introduction of IPDS, firefighters now find themselves operating within a much clearer and well-structured career path; it is possible to rise from firefighter to crew manager, then watch manager and on up to station, area, group and brigade commander. Promotions up to station commander are usually made within each brigade, while higher vacancies are advertised nationwide. Most senior officers will have worked in several brigades during their career, indicative of the tendency for people to move to different areas of the country through promotion.

999 – FIRE
Thanks to their necessarily close teamwork and working arrangements, firefighters often enjoy a camaraderie close to that found within the Services. While there are practical differences between the two professions, firefighting can offer a similarly challenging and worthwhile career in which you will continue to make a real difference, in the company of colleagues with whom you trust your life.


UK Fire Service Resources

IPDS (Integrated Personal Development System)

Fire Brigades Union
020 8541 1765

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